Friday, September 12, 2008

Controlled Experiments


When Tom Brady went down in the first quarter of the first game of the 2008 season, I had two immediate reactions.

The first was: “Shoot, there goes my fantasy football season.” Only 5 days earlier, I had used the #3 overall pick in the Murray Fantasy League on Brady, hoping he’d repeat his spectacular 2008 season (4800 yards, 50 TDs). So much for that plan.

But the second was, Hmm….this is as close as you can get to a controlled experiment to test two fascinating premises:

1. Is Bill Belichick a genius?
2. Can Randy Moss make any QB great?

Chickens & Eggs – Is Belichick a Genius?
Here’s your FreeTime fun fact of the day: there are 12 Super Bowl era head coaches in the NFL Hall of Fame. 10 of them had the good fortune of coaching at least one quarterback who is also in the Hall of Fame.

George Allen (Sonny Jurgenson)
Weeb Ewbank (John Unitas, Joe Namath)
Bud Grant (Fran Tarkenton)
Tom Landry (Roger Staubach)
Marv Levy (Jim Kelly)
Vince Lombardi (Bart Starr)
Chuck Noll (Terry Bradshaw)
Don Shula (John Unitas, Bob Griese, Dan Marino)
Hank Stram (Len Dawson)
Bill Walsh (Joe Montana)

The 11th, John Madden, had Kenny Stabler. During Madden’s coaching career Stabler made four Pro Bowls*, won an NFL MVP, and twice led the league in TD passes. Stabler is arguably the best NFL quarterback not in the Hall of Fame. He was certainly better than Namath and Griese.

The 12th is Joe Gibbs. Joe Gibbs won 3 Super Bowls with 3 different quarterbacks, none of whom were serious contenders for Canton. If you want to argue Joe Gibbs is the greatest coach of the modern era, you’ll get no argument here.

Bill Belichick is also Hall-bound, and like most of the others will be joined by his quarterback. But now we get to find out – can he succeed without Tom Brady?

Remember that this isn’t the first time Belichick lost his star quarterback. In the 2nd game of the 2001 season, Drew Bledsoe went down, and Belichick was forced to turn to his untested 6th round draft pick, Tom Brady. The rest is history.

Eggs & Chickens – Does the receiver make the quarterback?
Maybe it’s not the head coach who makes the quarterback successful, or vice-versa. Maybe, just maybe, the most important guy on the field is the superstar wide receiver.

Wide receivers don’t get much love. 32 quarterbacks and 17 running backs have won an MVP, as have one defensive tackle and one linebacker. Hell, even a kicker won one (Mark Moseley, who missed 3 XPs that year) . But no wide receiver has ever been considered most valuable. (Maybe that’s why so many of them are assholes.)

And yet, there is significant statistical evidence that great wide receivers turn otherwise mundane quarterbacks into very good quarterbacks, and very good quarterbacks into great ones. Head over to and look at the numbers for Jeff Garcia, Daunte Culpepper, Donovan McNabb, Randall Cunningham and Tom Brady.

Notice anything? All of them had crazy-good seasons when they were throwing to guys named Terrell Owens and Randy Moss – and less than crazy-good seasons the rest of the time.

Donovan McNabb has been a solid NFL quarterback who has led his team to many playoff appearances and appeared in five Pro Bowls, But his 2004 season stands out. He posted, by far, his best numbers in TD passes, yardage, QB rating, and completion percentage. It was the only full season he spent with T.O.

Jeff Garcia had 3 full seasons with T.O. He averaged 3720 yards and 28 TDs (30+ in two of them), and went to three straight Pro Bowls. He has been a sub-par quarterback the rest of his career.

Culpepper had three 16-game seasons with Moss at wideout. He threw for over 30 TDs in two of them, and made the Pro Bowl all 3. Since 2004, their last season together, he has been injured and ineffective and is now out of football.

My favorite is Cunningham. In 1998 Randall Cunningham was 35 years old, his best years well behind him, when he suddenly had a career year. Eight years removed from his last Pro Bowl appearance, he threw for 34 TDs, led the league with a 106.0 QB rating, and received his first and only All-Pro selection. Naturally, he was throwing to Moss that year.

And then there is the strange case of Thomas Edward Brady. Tom Brady won 3 Super Bowls before Randy Moss ever got to Foxboro, so he didn’t need Moss to be a great quarterback. But he did need Moss to become a great passer – which some people think is an integral part of the quarterback position.

Prior to Moss’ lining up alongside him, Brady had been a very good passer, but not a great one. He led the league in yards one year and TD passes another (with an unimpressive league leading 28). He had a very good TD/INT rate, and kept his QB rating in the mid-80’s to low 90’s. He was over 60% every year in pass completion percentage.

But he had never thrown for 30 TDs (those guys above all threw for 30+ when throwing to Moss/TO). He had only one 4000 yard season. And while he made a few Pro Bowls, he never made All-Pro.

Then Moss signed with the Patriots, and Tom Brady re-wrote the record books. Anyone with an objective mind would have to think, hmmm, Moss made him much better.

Have Fun Storming the Cassel
How will Bill Belichick do with Matt Cassel at quarterback? How will Cassel do with Moss?

He’s not the ideal quarterback for our controlled experiment because we have no benchmark to compare his performance. I’d rather it be Brian Griese or Kerry Collins or some guy who has a track record. In other words, we have no idea how good/bad Cassel is, so it's difficult to determine what kind of impact Belichick/Moss are having on him.

But consider this: in his few fleeting moments on an NFL gridiron, he has played what amounts to a full game. And it was a pretty good game: 22 of 39 for 255 yards, 2 TDs and a pick.

With Belichick coaching, Moss receiving, and the rest of that well-run machine that is the New England Patriots, I’m betting they are playing football this January.

* A quick primer on the difference between Pro Bowl and All Pro. The Pro Bowl is like the All Star game - full rosters of 45 guys from each conference are selected. Starters, reserves - plus replacements for injured players. All total, over 100 players are "Pro Bowlers" every year. All Pro is a much higher honor. Each year, the Associated Press selects one guy at every position for their All Pro team. So, Tom Brady has been selected to four Pro Bowls, but was not selected All Pro until last year. Peyton Manning, a much better passer than Brady till last year, has gone to 8 Pro Bowls and was selected All Pro three times. Amazingly, in 2006, Manning led the league in TD passes and QB rating and was 2nd in yards, but didn't make All Pro.

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